At work, learning doesn’t occur only in a class or workshop or online. It also occurs on the job – through trial and error, conversations, and observation, among other things. Wherever and however learning occurs, feedback is an essential element. But not all feedback helps people learn. Here I want to briefly summarize what helps and what doesn’t.
Feedback that helps learning
Focused on the task not the person. It is specific and behavioral. Behavioral means the feedback describes observable behavior – what the learner did and/or said.
Low risk. The employee feels safe to discuss questions, mistakes, different approaches, etc. In other words, it is explicitly about development and it is explicitly not about final evaluation, like a rating on a performance review.
Praise the process and/or effort. If there is praise, it should focus on the individual’s effort and what he or she did or did not do. Learning specifically what works helps build what Carol Dweck calls a development mindset.
Highlights progress. Noting even a little bit of progress toward the goal can be motivating.
Appropriate to the individual’s level of knowledge/experience. If the person is a novice, providing feedback often is not as useful as giving specific information about what to do, how to do it, and why. If the person is experienced, he or she will have a better understanding of how to apply the feedback.
Delivered close the event that led to the feedback. Feedback delivered well after the event could seem irrelevant or unimportant. Or the gap in time might mean that the individual won’t completely understand the feedback.
Act. If the feedback is useful it should be acted upon.
Feedback that does not help learning
Broadly speaking, feedback that does not help learning is the opposite of feedback that is helpful.
General and vague feedback does not help learning because the individual doesn’t know what to do differently.
Focus on personality traits or level of intelligence does not help because it shifts attention from the task/topic the individual is learning to whether he or she has the capacity/capability to learn. There are at least two problems with this.
- Just because someone has the capacity/capability to learn doesn’t mean they will.
- A focus on capacity/capability can lead people to believe they were born with a fixed amount of intelligence or talent – what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset can be self-defeating.
Praise doesn’t help learning very much. It might feel good, but unless the individual also receives specific information about what to continue doing, praise is easy to ignore and often is. Also, praise doesn’t help build intrinsic motivation, which people need if they are going to be responsible for their own learning.
A rating or grade does not help learning. There are two reasons:
- The individual already has done the learning. The rating tells the individual how well he or she did, not how to do better. (This is the difference between formative and summative feedback.)
- Receiving a rating or some other evaluation, often feels risky. The individual’s focus is not on learning. It usually is on the rating, their feelings of vulnerability, and what to do about it – like preparing information to counter a possible negative evaluation.
Leading questions and hints do not work with people who are new to a topic. Just tell them what you want them to know and tell them why. More experienced people might find the questions annoying. Be straightforward.
Some feedback helps people learn. But not all feedback does that.
Feedback that helps people learn is focused on the task not the person. It is specific, behavioral and delivered close to the event. Feedback that doesn’t help people learn is the opposite.
Evaluation is a type of feedback. It is not useful for learning. However, it can be useful for confirming what you have or have not learned.
Fit the feedback to the person receiving it. If the person is a novice, skip the feedback. Provide specific information about what to do, how to do it, and why. If the person is experienced, he or she is more likely to know how to apply the feedback.
For feedback to be useful it must be acted upon.